By ALAN BRIEN
IT is sometimes said that if the ex-Communists or Britain could be ever re- activated they would form the largest party in the country. This dream of King Street and nightmare of Smith Square bears little relation to reality. The card-carrying member has always been part of a tiny elite — a Guards NCO trained and disciplined to lead a battalion of fellow-travelling Territorials into battle. The laziest and most timid would work at least as hard for the cause as the chairman of the branch in any other party. Such people simply do not exist in overwhelming numbers anywhere in the world—not even in Russia. It is the former Com- munist sympathisers who must now number several hundreds of thousands. I know, because I was once one of them, and even on latrine- cleaning and garbage-sorting punishment in the RAF I never undertook such embarrassing and distasteful tasks as I did then. And what's more— this may be the key to our willingness to serve in the humblest capacity—never have I felt ,so strongly that 1 had my shoulder to the steam- roller of history, that every push through the mud and over the flint was helping to build a road into the future.
There is no one reason why any person sup- ports or rejects Communism. Some joined in the General Strike and left over the Moscow Trials. Others were recruited when Hitler took power and left at the German-Soviet Pact. A number were drawn in after Stalingrad and spewed out after Hungary. Even an occasional lone wolf rallied to the red flag because of Hungary, like Hugh McDiarmid. Today the Communist Party of Great Britain is more perturbed by those who .marched out because they thought that Stalin had been vilified than those who melted away because they considered he had been deified. The partisans of Chou En-lai are more dangerous than the admirers of Khrushchev to the old- time Stalinists who still have squatters' rights in corners of the machine.
I enrolled as a camp-follower when ' I was fifteen and began to play truant when I was eighteen. I mention the ages not to excuse myself ('he was only a boy at the time'), but to explain how Communism is more attractive to the idealist, the fighter and the altruist than to the careerist, the coward and the failure.
Teenagers had barely been invented in 1940. 'Adolescent' was almost a medical term, asso- ciated with pimples and sex instruction. We were Youth. Are we doing enough for Youth? the papers asked. And as Youth, we were self- consciously critical, questioning, sceptical, burst- ing at every pore with integrity and honesty. Under the political truce, the Labour Party hardly existed as an opinion-maker. Its League of Youth died in my home town the day after
war was declared. The Young Conservatives were middle-aged thirty-year-olds who gave dances and ran tennis tournaments. Only the Young Communist League seemed to project alone and defiant above the blanket of propaganda which smothered the country. They were the only ones who considered that Youth needed to be con- vinced that it was right and necessary and in- evitable that we should march out of school into the Forces and prepare to kill or be killed. They had all the arguments—everyone else simply said, 'There's a war on, isn't there?' The fact that they were considered either childish delinquents or foreign agents made them more, not less, attrac- tive to me and my friends. We were an under- age maquis in a country occupied by conformist adults who believed everything they read in the papers or heard on the BBC. It was D. N. Pritt's Penguin Special aiout Fin- land, Must The War Spread?, which first awoke my interest. (Later on, of course, after Hitler in- vaded Russia, the line became The War Must Spread.) Mt. Pritt appealed to our delight in para- dox, to our desire to be persuaded with facts and figures and quotations. It was a masterly piece of advocacy and we happily set about repeating it to our parents and teachers who proved unable to controvert any of its conclusions. If they could be wrong about the causes and aims of a war which was destroying civilisation, then perhaps they were wrong about the structure and motives of civilisation too.
We rented a house in the slums by the docks, christened it the Unity Club and set up our own re-education classes. I think we studied longer and harder to become Marxists than to pass our School Certificates. We carried thin, finger- marked copies of the Little Lenin Library with us everywhere. We argued in the parks on summer nights, over flat beer by gas fires in front rooms, while fishing from the end of the pier or on the packed, boozy, unlit last tram home on a Satur- day night, until we were as well-rehearsed as acrobats. We infiltrated church socials, WEA evening classes, grammar school debates, the correspondence columns of the local paper, carrying all before us. It was a closed system of thought with a comprehensive explanation and an ordered solution for every problem. But, at least, it was a system of thought. We were the ones
'Frankly, there's no such thing as "an embarrassment of riches."' who were flexing our minds—it was our opponents who thought in slogans and argued in circles. No doubt we were heretics and deviation- ists to the faraway YCL bosses in London But the an raids, the disrupted train services, the blackout, and our own provincial arrogance, protected us from being ruled from headquarters.
Battling with our contemporaries, in a ship- building town where all young adults were either in the Forces or on continual overtime, was an elaborate and exciting game. But we knew from our studies that we must also spread the gospel to the people. And so we would drag ourselves from bed on Sunday mornings and tour the pit villages selling twcipenny pamphlets, and later illegal editions of the banned Daily Worker, to harassed housewives with hands coated with flour and burly suspicious men in braces. We turned up at factory gates, hours before school began, to hand out leaflets. We stood on beer crates (I have never seen a soap box) on the sea front haranguing the Sunday night strollers, blushing a little when we saw a master or an uncle in the distance. We collected money in pubs and sat in draughty, three-quarters empty Co-op Halls listening to speakers demanding a People's Peace and passing resolutions insisting on Freedom for India or More Deep Shelters. Often we had fits of despondency as if we were shouting ina desert—then we would stage an old-fashioned necking party at the Unity Club or go for a hike beyond the pit heads without carrying banners. One thing that cheered was that we were serious enough to be under a police watch. Two stolid, red-faced men in trench macs and pork-pie hats sat at the back of all our public meetings, occasionally scribbling in a notebook and in- evitably putting a. shilling each in the plate. We liked to think they were from the Special BranCh and had all our photographs and particulars re- corded on cards in their office. Sometimes we would halt in the middle of the speech to ask them whether we were speaking too fast, or re- peat a sentence to make sure that they got it down correctly, but they refused to be drawn.
The local Communist Party had rather mixed feelings about us and were always issuing memoranda insisting that we inform them in advance of our plans. We never did, and time and again they were deluded into thinking that they had stumbled upon a nest of hated Trotskyites or contemptible ILP-ers only to discover that we were behind the strike, the rent march or the petition to the Town Council.' Some of our amateurish methods particularly infuriated them, such as my habit of printing leaflets on the most expensive paper and using only one side. I thought this was simply mean-mindedness until it was explained that shipyard workers would accept any sheet at the dock gate for use as lavatory paper—and there had been complaints about my stiff uncomfortable supply.
We would not have lasted a moment in any half-efficient police State, but we prided our; selves on our security arrangements. We woulel pass each other in the street without a nod, exl- change school satchels under the counter in book shops, transmit messages inside oldWoodbine packets, arrive at meeting places ten minu14 apart.
Life became much harder after Russia was in- vaded. Then we were in the open and obliged to slave for the .war effort. We broke stones in quarries, collected old metal, joined the Cadet Force and the Home Guard, volunteered for fire watching and Civil Defence, campaigned against strikes, and even organised dances for Mrs. Churchill's war charities. It was a relief to join the Forces and be paid for fighting against Fascism.